U of A Preserves Native Genetics from Remnant Tallgrass Prairie Site
Volunteers collecting Big Bluestem seeds on an autumn afternoon behind the Cato Springs Research Center.
The U of A Office for Sustainability has partnered with the U of A Herbarium to inventory plants and collect seeds from an on-campus remnant prairie. This unique site is being used by the university as a living laboratory for biology research, a field site for students and a seed source for horticulture students learning to grow locally adapted native plants for U of A restoration projects.
The 4.5-acre remnant prairie is located immediately south of the Cato Springs Research Center. The plot is part of a once-extensive grassland ecosystem consisting of tallgrass prairie and oak savanna that was historically maintained in its open condition by natural and human-caused fires. Over time, this landscape that was once very common in Northwest Arkansas largely disappeared due to fire suppression, urban development and conversion to non-native grasses for hay production.
Although the prairie remnant at the Cato Springs Research Center has been altered by humans over time, many plant species that were common in tallgrass prairies and savannas of the region are still present there. These species, which provide important food and habitat for pollinators and grassland birds, include big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), tall green milkweed (Asclepias hirtella), butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata), white wild indigo (Baptisia alba var. macrophylla), cream false indigo (Baptisia bracteata var. leucophaea), ashy sunflower (Helianthus mollis), rough blazing-star (Liatris aspera), slender mountain-mint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium), gray coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Virginia meadow-beauty (Rhexia virginica), Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium).
Restoration of tallgrass prairie at this site will provide many benefits to the university and surrounding community. Healthy prairies, no matter their size, are better able to reduce soil and nutrient loss, minimize storm water runoff, sequester carbon and provide habitat and food for wildlife than fields and pastures of non-native grasses. In the case of the remnant prairie at Cato Springs Research Center, the primary desired outcome is to restore native species that were once abundant at the site so that seed collection can be conducted in support of projects at the U of A and the Arkansas Native Seed Program.
Leading the seed collection efforts is Jennifer Ogle, collections manager of the U of A Herbarium and co-author of Trees, Shrubs, and Woody Vines of Arkansas. In collaboration with the Office for Sustainability, Ogle has hosted seed collection volunteer events throughout October in a concerted effort to collect big bluestem and other native species such as slender mountain mint and meadow beauty, which will be used to restore and enhance sections of the larger 10-acre Post Oak Savanna. This U of A Oak Savanna restoration project is a partnership between the U of A and NWA Trailblazers with the support of Ozark Ecological Restoration Inc., City of Fayetteville, U of A Herbarium and The Nature Conservancy.
Ogle said, "We are collecting native seed from higher quality areas of the prairie near CSRC and using it to restore degraded areas of the nearby savanna. Because the seeds are local, they are adapted to the soils and climate of this region, which will give them the best chance to survive and thrive. Plants grown from locally sourced seed also produce flowers and fruit at times when local wildlife need them most. If we were to use native seed from other regions instead, the plants grown from them may flower and fruit at times when the animals that need them are not active."
Native plants are the backbone of healthy ecosystems. Once established, most native plants require less water and none need supplemental fertilizer, and they provide the best food and habitat for wildlife. Some animals are in decline due to widespread habitat loss, including the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) and northern bobwhite (Colinus virginianus). Native plants provide the most beneficial food and habitat for these declining species and a host of other insects, birds, mammals and reptiles.
"Working with students to save seeds and then put those native genetics into action on our own restoration projects is a fantastic way to align education with campus sustainability projects," said Eric Boles, director of the U of A Office for Sustainability. "This is the gold standard for using native seed in restoration."
To learn how to get involved with volunteer opportunities on the site such as invasive plant removal and native seed collection, visit the Office for Sustainability GivePulse page.
The U of A's tallgrass prairie and oak savanna provides many research and application opportunities to U of A faculty and students. If your department is interested in getting involved with these sites, please contact the U of A Office for Sustainability.
About the Office for Sustainability: The mission of the University of Arkansas Office for Sustainability is to motivate, facilitate, and coordinate responsible practices through partnerships with students, faculty, and staff across all campus departments. The OFS uses the campus as a living laboratory by overseeing the implementation of the University of Arkansas environmental goals. These programs are part of the UA Resiliency Center, hosted by the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design, and are supported by UA Facilities Management.
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